Rockabilly was a 1950s precursor of punk. It was uptempo, aggressive, and shared with punk the same DIY “hell, I’ll give that a whirl” sense of adventure. It also provided more than a few hillbilly musicians with a chance to dream that hey, maybe this little song could turn things around, and make them the next truck drivin’ sonofagun with their name up there in lights. There are good reasons why so many rockabilly singers sound like Elvis Presley knock-offs.
Like rock’n’roll, rockabilly was a mixture of rhythm and blues and country music, although country – and especially Western swing – tended to be the dominant strain. Presley’s breakthrough hit “That’s All Alright (Mama)” for example, may have been a 1946 rhythm and blues number, but his version had no drummer, and the percussion effects came from a guy playing slapped bass.
On the flipside of that first Presley single was an old Bill Monroe country song, sped up and done in four four time, with the vocals beefed up by a primitive “slapback echo” that producer Sam Philips had concocted in the Sun studio. Basically, Philips would record the dry signal on one tape machine’s recording head while simultaneously recording the playback (usually just the vocals) as it was being played on a separate machine. The audible delay – heard as an echo – was a product of the physical space between the heads of the machines. Point being, rockabilly may have drawn on older forms of music, but it tweaked them in new and influential ways.
Rockabilly had another, less attractive feature. At a time – 1954-59 – when rock’n’roll was a broad church relatively open to black artists like Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, and any number of doo wop groups – the real gone cats of rockabilly were exclusively white, and with a few exceptions, male. (Those dated gender politics are part of why it feels so sadly retro to hear modern bands trying to play rockabilly.) True to the original spirit, everything on the rockabilly playlist below is pre-1960… Except for Janis Martin’s live, recorded- in-Germany medley of “ My Baby Left Me” “That’s Alright” and “CC Rider.”
The session guitarist Grady Martin is the hidden hero of the playlist. That’s him on Johnny Burnette’s “Your Baby Blue Eyes” and “Train Kept A-Rollin’” and on Johnny Horton’s “Honky Tonk Hardwood Floor” plus there’s a Martin soundalike on the Janis Martin live cut. In the 1960s, Grady Martin played the signature riff on Roy Orbison’s hit “Oh, Pretty Woman, and he also played the Spanish guitar that sets up the fatalistic mood on Marty Robbins biggest hit “El Paso.”)
There’s a small contradiction here. On one hand, rockabilly did offer a lot of hopefuls their shot at the gold ring of success. Yet at Owen’s Bradley’s influential recording studio in Nashville, it tended to be only the singers who got to perform. The house band (Martin on guitar, Bob Moore on bass, Buddy Harman on drums and Boots Randolph on sax) commonly did the rest. In that sense, Bradley’s band of ace session musicians was a forerunner of the Wrecking Crew kingpins of 1960s pop music, and the resident house band at the Muscle Shoals studio.
In addition, Grady Martin was also central to one of the most heated and enduring disputes in popular music. By general agreement, Johnny Burnette’s version of “Train Kept A-Rollin’” featured the first ever intentional use of guitar distortion. Burnette’s version of “Train” was later picked up by Jeff Beck and the Yardbirds, and covered by both Led Zeppelin and Aerosmith, so it can lay claim to being the grandfather of heavy metal, among other things… So, we need to know… Who actually played that lightly fuzzed guitar on this seminal track – Grady Martin, or Burnette’s usual guitarist, Paul Burlison? Johnny Burnette himself was no longer available for comment. At 30, he’d drowned in 1964 after his fishing boat got hit by a cabin cruiser.
The last time I wrote about this dispute, I got an annoyed email from the son of Paul Burlison. If you want to go down the rabbit hole, this site is probably as good a place as any for an overview of the dispute, and for a plausible conclusion. Lets just say the current consensus is that it was almost certainly Grady Martin. At that fateful July 2, 1956 recording session, Martin was probably playing his Bigsley 1952 double-neck guitar through a Standel 25L15 amplifier. Good to know.
Footnote: Completists may care to check out a 1961 Grady Martin instrumental on Youtube called “The Fuzz.” Yes, it features a fuzzed guitar.
And some of the rest…
“Downright Evil”: Jody Reynolds. On tracks like “The Girl With the Raven Hair” and “Fire of Love” Reynolds displayed a gift for heightened emotion. Basically, he was emo decades ahead of his time. His haunting pop hit “Endless Sleep” for instance, recounted how his girlfriend drowned herself – they were that much in love – only for her to return in the last verse for the happy ending that the record label insisted on. With “Downright Evil” on the other hand, Reynolds is a bad boy who knows he’s a psychopath, but what can you do?
“I Vibrate” by Mack Self Relax, he’s singing about nervous energy. This was the flipside of Self’s single “Easy To Love” on Sun Records, an old fashioned 1940s style country music track. This was something of a rockabilly pattern. By the mid to late 1950s, quite a few middle-aged country musicians down on their luck were having a shot at this rock’n’rollin’ kids’stuff. Keep it simple, give it a whirl. That’s why some of the lesser rockabilly tracks still give off a weird vibe of singers perving over young girls half their age.
“Vibrate” was produced by Jack Clements, who not only produced Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’On” but wrote some of Johnny Cash’s finest early recordings like “Ballad of a Teenage Queen” and “Guess Things Happen That Way.” He also added the opening horns to Cash’s “Ring of Fire.” Clement couldn’t work his hit magic on Mack Self though, but “Vibrate” did deserve a better fate.
“I Need a Man” by Barbara Pittman A neighbour and family friend of the Presleys, Barbara Pittman was brought by Elvis to Sun Records, which never showed much interest in female singers. Partly thanks to the lack of promotion, none of the records she cut with Sun were successful. Pittman went off to California and later sang on the soundtrack of several of Roger Corman’s low budget motorcycle gang movies, like Wild Angels.
“Honky Tonk Hardwood Floor” by Johnny Horton. Horton had his biggest successes with pop songs (“North to Alaska”) and faux historical epics like “The Battle of New Orleans” and “Sink the Bismarck” But beforehand, he and Grady Martin had also made some terrific rockabilly records like “I’m Coming Home (To Make Sweet Love to You)” and “Honky Tonk Man.” Horton had a great rock’n’roll voice, even though no-one looked less like a musician. His death in a car accident in November 1960 was a major loss.
“The Raging Sea” by Gene Maltais As the career of Gene Maltais demonstrates, perseverance and talent can…still not be enough. Blame it on him being born in New Hampshire, maybe the least rockingest state in the union. Both sides of Maltais’ killer 1959 single “The Raging Sea” b/w“Gang War” deserved to be hits, instead of being rescued from obscurity decades later by European rockabilly revivalists. For his sins, Maltais also wrote the infamous “Little Girl” single by John and Jackie, a track that featured an over-excited vocal contribution by Jackie that would probably still disqualify it for radio airplay today, let alone in the 1950s.
“99 Chicks” by Ron Haydock and the Bops. After this excellent rockabilly single failed to set the world on fire, Haydock became a key collaborator with Z-grade film director Ray Dennis Steckler on the stupefyingly terrible film Wild Guitars, and also on (spoiler alert) The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed Up Zombies. At 37, Haydock was run over by a truck while hitch-hiking. As my daughter recently said, that’s such a classic rockabilly death, matched only by crashing on your motorbike while playing chicken.
“Action Packed” by Ronnie Dee. Ronnie “Dee” Dawson’s father Pinkie used to belong to a Western swing band called the Manhattan Merrymakers. The hyperactivity bragged about on “Action Packed” seemed to come to him naturally. As an unruly teen, Ronnie had been expelled from the Southern Bible Institute in Waxahatchie before being discovered “just jumping around” at a talent quest held by the Future Farmers of America. “Action Packed was his first single, recorded when he was 17 and sounding like a cocky 14 year old.
Later, Dawson made a couple of very good (unsuccessful) tracks for CBS under the name of Commonwealth Jones. They’re worth checking out. As a session musician, he played drums on the number one hit “Hey Paula” and also on Bruce Channel’s “Hey Baby” hit alongside his old pal Delbert McClinton, who later became an alt-country icon. After the Cramps revived Dawson’s second single “Rockin Bones” Dawson then became a star attraction on the rockabilly revival circuit. He died of throat cancer (aged 64) in 2003.
“My Baby Left Me” by Janis Martin RCA promoted Janis Martin as the “female Elvis” and that probably did her more harm than good. Janis Martin singles like “Drugstore Rock’n’Roll;” and “Teen Street” still have plenty going for them. Among other things, this freewheeling medley (it includes two Elvis blues, both written by Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup) breaks out of the formulaic traps to which rockabilly was prone.
“Sunglasses After Dark” by Dwight Pullen. Dwight “Whitey” Pullen died from prostate cancer at the age of 31. His classic 1958 track was a good natured piss-take of hipsterdom, inspired by real life. Reportedly, songwriter Jim Nobles had seen a black guy in shades riding through town one evening in his automobile and thought : “Sunglasses after dark. Man, that looks cool.” Pullen, a one time club manager, one time car salesman ( in Alaska) did the definitive version, unsuccessful during his lifetime.
“Lou Lou” by Darrell Rhodes Rhodes came from Texas, and he made at least one other memorable single (“Four O’Clock Baby”) that celebrated how he liked to walk on the wild side. On his best single, his gal Lou Lou is said to be so bad that she (a) smokes cigarettes from a flip-top box and (b) wrote the book, and when others learn it, they feel shook… Watch out fellers, Lou Lou’s taking this town.
“Go Girl Go” by Jett Powers. This was the first single by someone from Houston, Texas who later became a 1960s pop star – especially in the UK – under the name P.J. Proby. The name “ Jett Powers” was dreamed up by his manager, who also managed the flamboyant pianist Liberace. Thanks to his Las Vegas residency, Liberace was reportedly at one time the highest paid entertainer in the world. The backing for Jett Powers on this track was by a band called Vince Parlo and the Raunch Hands.
“I Wanna Bop” by Billy Harlan He came from Muhlenberg County in Kentucky, home of the Everly Brothers and Merle Travis, but at the time, Billy Harlan’s main claim to musical fame was a brief stint playing bass for Jim Reeves. As Harlan once put it: “I tell people the guy that plays the bass is the guy that don’t sing that well, and don’t play the guitar that well.” By the end of his 20s, he’d given the music game away, and he raised a family by working in the space industry and later, as a computer technician.
In his seventies, Harlan got invited to a rockabilly revival convention in Las Vegas and found to his amazement that he had fans from France, Canada, Germany and Sweden who knew by heart all the words to songs he hadn’t played for 50 years. After the show, they were lining up for selfies and asking him for his autograph. Regrets? He had a few. But as the Louisville Courier-Journal newspaper pointed out in 2015 in a “local old guy famous in Sweden” article:
Harlan doesn’t lament that fame came late. By some measures, he’s lived a bit of the superstar lifestyle: He’s had three wives, drives a Cadillac and still uses pomade to poof his grey hair, though not quite into the pompadour he once had.
As Harlan put it on his best record: “One o’clock in the morning/I was walking down the street/couldn’t keep from boppin’/got a rhythm in my feet/I wanna bop, I wanna stroll/really love rock ‘n’ roll…” Amen to that. Here’s the playlist :